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TUCoPS :: Wetware Hacking :: Others :: mediav~1.txt

The Media Virus





Welcome to the "datasphere," also known as the late twentieth century. 
Here, good news, bad news, _any_ news, travels in the blink of an eye.  And
not just news, but information: ideas, images, and icons; fads, fashions,
and fantasies; truth, lies, and propaganda.  While cable television, fiber-
optic telecommunications, satellite dishes, computer modems, camcorders,
fax machines, and videocassettes form the crisscrossed arteries of a vast
"information superhighway," we must ask ourselves: What sort of messages
are these brave new medias carrying into our culture?
 
As culture critic for our wild times, Douglas Rushkoff shows that where
there's a wavelength, there's a way to "infect" those on it--from the
subtly, but intentionally, subversive signals broadcast by shows like "The
Simpsons," to the odd serendipity of a classic New York-style sex 'n'
family values scandal (a la Woody and Mia) exploited by the Republicans
during their convention.
 
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MEDIA VIRUS Table of Contents
 
Introduction: The Nature of Infection
Part 1   On Getting Cultured
     Chapter 1: The Datasphere
Part 2   The Mainstream
     Chapter 2: TV Forums
     Chapter 3: Presidential Campaigning
     Chapter 4: Kids' TV
     Chapter 5: The MTV Revolution
Part 3   The Underground
     Chapter 6: Alternative Media
     Chapter 7: Tactical Media
     Chapter 8: The Net
     Chapter 9: Pranks
     Chapter 10: Meta-media
 
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From the INTRODUCTION:  THE NATURE OF INFECTION
 
The messages in our media come to us packaged as Trojan horses.  They enter
our homes in one form, but behave in a very different way than we expect
once they are inside.  This is not so much a conspiracy against the viewing
public as it is a method for getting the mainstream media to unwittingly
promote countercultural agendas that can actually empower the individuals
who are exposed to them.  The people who run network television or popular
magazines, for example, are understandably unwilling to run stories or
images that directly criticize the operating principles of the society that
its sponsors are seeking to maintain.  Clever young media strategists with
new, usually threatening ideas need to invent new nonthreatening forms that
are capable of safely housing these dangerous concepts until they have been
successfully delivered to the American public as part of our daily diet of
mainstream media.
 
    This requires tremendous insight into the way media works.  Today's
activists understand the media as an extension of a living organism.  Just
as ecologists now understand the life on this planet to be part of a single
biological organism, media activists see the datasphere as the circulatory
system for today's information, ideas, and images.  The datasphere was
created over the past two or three decades as the households and businesses
of America were hard-wired together through devices like cable television,
telephone systems, and personal computer modems.  As individuals we are
each exposed to the datasphere whenever we come into contact with
communications technology such as television, computer networks, magazines,
video games, fax machines, radio shows, CDs, or videocassettes.
 
    People who lack traditional political power but still seek to influence
the direction of our culture do so by infusing new ideas into this ever-
expanding datasphere.  These information  bombs  spread throughout the
entire information net in a matter of seconds.  For instance, a black man
is beaten by white cops in Los Angeles.  The event is captured on a home
camcorder and within hours the beating is replayed on the televisions of
millions.  Within days it's the topic of an afternoon talk show; within
weeks it's a court case on the fictional  L.A.  Law ; within months it's a
TV movie; before the end of the year it's the basis of a new video game, a
comic book, and set of trading cards.  Finally, what began as a thirty-
second video clip emerges as the battle cry for full-scale urban rioting. 
This riot, in turn, is amplified on more talk shows, radio call-ins, and
new episodes of "L.A.  Law"! A provocative image or idea like Rodney King
getting beaten or even Pee-Wee Herman masturbating in a porno
theater spreads like wildfire.  The event attracts our attention and
generates media for several seconds, minutes, or even months ...  but its
influence on us doesn't stop there.
 
    Within every media sensation are ideas, issues, and agendas often
purposefully placed that influence us less directly.  A home video of
police beating a black man, for example, initiates a series of responses in
the viewer.  Questions of racism, police brutality, the First Amendment,
Los Angeles politics, drug abuse, even the power of consumer-grade
electronics to name a few are all released by the single media image in its
media context.  Similarly, a media icon like Pee-Wee Herman attracts
attention because he is bizarre and funny, but hidden in the image and
forcing us to respond are questions about homosexuality, consumerism run
amok, the supposed innocence of childhood, and the farce of adulthood. 
 
    If we are to understand the datasphere as an extension of a planetary
ecosystem or even just the breeding ground for new ideas in our culture,
then we must come to terms with the fact that the media events provoking
real social change are more than simple Trojan horses.  They are media
viruses.
 
    This term is not being used as a metaphor.  These media events are not
_like_ viruses.  They _are_ viruses.  Most of us are familiar with
biological viruses like the ones that cause the flu, the common cold, and
perhaps even AIDS.  As they are currently understood by the medical
community, viruses are unlike bacteria or germs because they are not living
things; they are simply protein shells containing genetic material.  The
attacking virus uses its protective and sticky protein casing to latch onto
a healthy cell and then inject its own genetic code, essentially genes,
inside.  The virus code mixes and competes for control with the cell's own
genes, and, if victorious, it permanently alters the way the cell functions
and reproduces.  A particularly virulent strain will transform the host
cell into a factory that replicates the virus.
 
    It's really a battle for command of the cell, fought between the cell's
own genetic programming (DNA) and the virus's invading code.  Wherever the
cell's existing codes are weak or confused, the virus will have a better
chance of taking over.  Further, if the host organism has a weak immune
system, its susceptibility to invasion is dramatically increased.  It can't
recognize that it is being attacked and can't mobilize its defenses.  The
protein shell of a virus is the Trojan horse.  The genetic codes are the
soldiers hidden inside, battling our own genes in an attempt to change the
way our cells operate.  The only "intention" of the virus, if it can be
said to have one, is to spread its own code as far and wide as
possible from cell to cell and from organism to organism.
 
    Media viruses spread through the datasphere the same way biological
ones spread through the body or a community.  But instead of traveling
along an organic circulatory system, a media virus travels through the
networks of the mediaspace.  The  protein shell of a media virus might be
an event, invention, technology, system of thought, musical riff, visual
image, scientific theory, sex scandal, clothing style or even a pop hero as
long as it can catch our attention.  Any one of these media virus shells
will search out the receptive nooks and crannies in popular culture and
stick on anywhere it is noticed.  Once attached, the virus injects its more
hidden agendas into the datastream in the form of _ideological code_--not
genes, but a conceptual equivalent we now call  memes.* Like real genetic
material, these memes infiltrate the way we do business, educate ourselves,
interact with one another even the way we perceive reality.
 
    Media viruses spread rapidly if they provoke our interest, and their
success is dependent on the particular strengths and weaknesses of the host
organism, popular culture.  The more provocative an image or icon like the
videotaped police beating or a new rap lyric, for that matter  the further
and faster it will travel through the datasphere.  We do not recognize the
image, so we cannot respond automatically to it.  Our interest and
fascination is a sign that we are not culturally  immune to the new virus. 
The success of the memes within the virus, on the other hand, depends on
our legal, moral, and social resiliency.  If our own attitudes about
racism, the power of police, drug abuse, and free speech are
ambiguous meaning our societal code  is faulty  then the invading memes
within the media virus will have little trouble infiltrating our own
confused command structure.
 
    There appear to be three main kinds of media viruses.  The most obvious
variety, like publicity stunts or activist pranks, are constructed and
launched intentionally, as a way of spreading a product or ideology.  There
are also what we can call co-opted or "bandwagon  viruses" the Woody
Allen/Mia Farrow debacle or the AIDS epidemic that no one necessarily
launches intentionally, but which are quickly seized upon and spread by
groups who hope to promote their own agendas.  (Republicans used the Woody
affair to criticize New York's family values; ultraright conservatives used
the AIDS epidemic to equate homosexuality with evil).  Finally, there are
completely self-generated viruses like the Rodney King beating, the Tonya
Harding/Nancy Kerrigan affair, or even new technologies like virtual
reality and scientific discoveries  that elicit interest and spread of
their own accord because they hit upon a societal weakness or ideological
vacuum.
 
    Today's media activists understand the properties of media viruses. 
The designers of intentional viruses take into account both the aspects of
the status quo they wish to criticize, as well as the kinds of packaging
that will permit the distribution of their critique.  Most, but certainly
not all, intentional media viruses are cultivated from scratch.  The "smart
drugs" virus is an excellent example of such designer memes.  By the late
1980s a small group of AIDS activists, pharmaceutical industry critics, and
psychedelics advocates felt the need to call our current drug paradigm into
question.  The AIDS activists were upset by laws limiting the domestic use
of unapproved or experimental drugs from overseas.  The pharmaceutical
industry critics were frustrated by the way that the profit motives of drug
companies could limit rather than expand the number of helpful medications
and nutrients available to the public.  The psychedelics advocates were
disturbed by the "just say no" drug abuse publicity campaign, which denies
the possibility of any value to experimentation with mind-altering
substances.
 
    The virus began with the carefully conceived phrase "smart drugs." 
Like many of the media viruses we'll be exploring--virtual reality, techno-
shamanism, ecological terrorism--"smart drugs" is an oxymoron.  By
juxtaposing two words or ideas that do not normally go together, the phrase
demands thought:  Drugs are smart?  Utilizing a hypnosis technique first
developed by Milton Erickson, the contradictory phrase creates its own
unique conceptual slot in the minds of people who hear it.  The longer the
phrase demands conscious attention, the more opportunity the virus has to
inject its memes.  If it makes us think, then we cannot be immune to it. 
Like a deer in a car's headlights, we freeze in our tracks.
 
    The term "smart drugs" is meant to refer to a group of nutrients and
prescription drugs that have long been shown to enhance memory functioning
in senile people.  A few doctors and nutritionists began to experiment with
these substances on normally functioning people to see if they could induce
superior mental functioning and found some positive results in their tests. 
These doctors ran up against many obstacles when they tried to publicize
their findings and get research dollars for further study.  AIDS,
pharmaceutical industry, and psychedelics activists adopted this cause as
their own and came up with smart drugs  as part of an overall media
strategy.
 
    The next task was to develop what we can call the "syringe" for the
virus.  The way a virus is administered is as important as the construction
of the virus itself.  Often the way in which a virus spreads communicates
as much as the memes within the virus.  The smart drugs activists decided
to create "The Smart Bar," a dispensary for over-the-counter cognitive-
enhancing substances, right on the dance floor of a popular nightclub.
 
    Within minutes after The Smart Bar opened, computer bulletin boards
carried news of the smart drugs.  Within weeks, _Rolling Stone,_ _GQ,_
"Larry King Live," "Nightline," and a host of other media outlets were
covering the event.  Other clubs began to sell smart drugs, health stores
stocked up on cognitive-enhancing nutrients, and a lot of people and
agencies became alarmed not only because smart drugs were sweeping the
nation, but because controversial memes within the smart drugs virus were
spreading themselves throughout the datasphere.
 
    While these drugs may or may not make a person smarter, their infusion
into the datasphere as an idea has called our FDA laws, pharmaceutical
industry, drug use policies, and medical mind-set into question.  The smart
drugs themselves are the Trojan horse--the sticky shell of the virus
getting all the attention.  As the smart drugs virus spread, one of its
creators, John Morgenthaler, was asked to appear on "Larry King Live." Once
safely nested on the studio set, he used the forum to explain how
information about many smart substances has been ignored or even suppressed
by the American pharmaceutical industry for years.  The young, unassuming,
and well-dressed man explained (to an audience whose appetite had already
been whetted by the term "smart drugs" and video footage of the smart bars)
how current FDA regulations require that millions of dollars of tests be
done before these substances can be prescribed for cognitive purposes. 
Because the patents for many of these chemicals expired before the
pharmaceutical companies realized their value, no firm today is willing to
spend research dollars on a chemical it can't own.
 
    This particular meme--we can call it the patent law meme--within the
smart drugs virus burrows deeply into the existing medical business
paradigm.  As smart drugs promoters go on the air to discuss the problems
caused by patent-motivated medical decisions, they convince viewers that
the pharmaceutical industry is dangerous to the population it claims to
serve.  Along with smart drugs, says an AIDS activist friend of
Morgenthaler's who appeared on "Nightline" a few weeks later, several
potentially effective AIDS medications have been suppressed because they,
too, cannot be patented.  Whether or not smart drugs prove effective at
all, the memes within the smart drugs media virus have infiltrated the
existing conceptual framework for drug legalization.
 
    The inconsistencies of our AIDS drug policies were exposed by the smart
drugs virus first on computer bulletin boards, then in magazines, then on
cable television, and finally on national network news.  The attraction to
the idea and sound of smart drugs and smart bars opened the necessary media
channels for the virus to spread.  The immune response of our culture to
the virus was weak because of our ambivalent attitudes toward drug use. 
The memes themselves were able to infiltrate because of our ambiguous laws
and policies our faulty societal code.
 
    But not all media viruses are constructed purposefully.  The Woody
Allen/Mia Farrow scandal was most probably, anyway not created as a
publicity stunt.  The particularly New York story broke, however, during
the Democratic Convention for Bill Clinton.  The Republicans, who had
already been denouncing New York as a hotbed of morally decadent and
cultural elitist  attitudes, were quick to capitalize on the Allen/Farrow
media virus.  Introductions for Bush's campaign speeches made reference to
Woody Allen, hoping to reinterpret the memes that had already spread--child
molestation, movie stars not being as they appear, New York confusion as
condemning evidence of Democratic family values.
 
    Finally there exist what countercultural activists would consider
"self-generated" viruses.  These are concepts or events that arise in the
media quite spontaneously, but spread widely because they strike a very
resonant chord or elicit a dramatic response from those who are exposed to
them.  If all of civilization is to be seen as a single organism, then
these self-generated viruses can be understood as self-corrective measures. 
They are ways for the organism to correct or modify its own code.  This is
what is known in evolutionary circles as mutation. 
 
    One such self-generated virus, the theories of chaos math, come to us
from deep in the computer departments of major universities, but their
implications have reignited enthusiasm for ancient pagan and
antiauthoritarian values.  This new, highly heralded form of mathematics
works without the straight lines and linear equations we have used to
interpret reality for the past dozen or so centuries and instead paints a
picture of our universe as a quite random, discontinuous field of natural
phenomena.  Chaos math is now used to analyze systems as complex as the
stock market or the weather with astonishingly accurate results.
 
    The famous phrase "a butterfly flapping its wings in China can create a
hurricane in New York" means that a tiny event in one remote area can lead
to huge repercussions in another.  It is no wonder that those attempting to
demonstrate the fall of hierarchical systems and to debunk the notion of
top-down control cherish the memes of the chaos math virus, which
contradict these orderly notions of natural behavior.  Activists love
evidence that supports their minuteman tactics.
 
    It is the media activists, most of all, who depend on a world-view that
accepts that a tiny virus, launched creatively and distributed widely, can
topple systems of thought as established as organized religion and
institutions as well rooted as, say, the Republican Party or even the two-
party system altogether.  This is why it is so important that we understand
that, at least as far as media activists are concerned, viruses are not a
bad thing. True, biological viruses, when successful, can destroy the host
organism.  If they invade and take control of enough cells, they redirect
vital functions that the host needs in order to survive.  Media viruses do
target a host organism, but that beast is not culture as whole; they target
the systems and faulty code that have taken control of culture and
inhibited the natural, chaotic flow of energy and information.
 
    A media virus may be designed to fight a political party, a religion,
an institution, an economy, a business, or even a system of thought.  Just
as scientists use viruses to combat certain diseases within the human body
or to tag dangerous cells for destruction by the person's own antibodies,
media activists use viruses to combat what they see as the enemies of our
culture.  Media viruses, whether intentional, co-opted, or spontaneous,
lead to societal mutation and some sort of evolution.  The purpose of this
book is not to cast judgment on any of the issues these activists raise,
but rather to examine the methods they use to promote what they see as
positive, evolutionary change.
 
    Interestingly enough, however, to come to grips with the efficacy of
media viruses in our present datasphere, we must also accept, or at least
acknowledge, the basic principles of the datasphere as these activists view
them.  To understand media viruses, we must allow ourselves to become
infected.
 
*See Dawkins, Richard, _Universal parasitism and the co-evolution of
extended phenotypes,_ _Whole Earth Review_ 62:90, Spring 1989.
 
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From CHAPTER 4: KIDS' TV
 
Children's television is as innovative as any programming being done today. 
Kids learn from and are entertained by puppets, animation, elaborately
costumed characters, special effects, and popular music.  The most
imaginative of kids' shows, though, appeal to the parents, too.  In the
tradition of "The Soupy Sales Show" and "Rocky and His Friends," most kids'
shows are directed at the child on one level and at the parent on another. 
There is a subtle, usually satirical or ironic communication going on
between the makers of kids' TV and the parents who are watching alongside
their children.  This communication almost always has an irreverent tone,
as if to counterbalance the surface sweetness or moral uprightness of the
show's main message.
 
    This is why kids' television has become, perhaps, the media's best
conduit for controversial memes.  The shows, their styles, and their
characters serve as innocuous veneers for the hidden agendas of their
creators.  The Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons, made in the sixties, were a
tongue-in-cheek satire of America's cold war paranoia.  Boris Badenov and
his partner, Natasha, were sinister Russian spies, out to capture and kill
 Moose and Squirrel  at any cost.  Viewers were encouraged to laugh along
at this glaring satire of patriotic fervor, as embodied by the all-too-
serious flying squirrel.  Soupy Sales was a bitingly funny intellectual
comedian whose own kids' show served more as a platform for higher comedy
and media satire than it did as an entertainment for children.  Even his
infamous downfall  when he asked each of the children watching to send him
little green pieces of paper was really a comment on the ruthless
merchandising exercised by shows like "Romper Room" and "Bozo the Clown" on
their young viewers, selling do-bee hats or promoting contests.  The joke,
of course, backfired, but Soupy had launched a prototypical media virus and
developed a new mutation of the kids' show host that was to evolve much
further in the coming decades.
 
    We have come to expect hidden messages in our kids' TV.  Today parents
are more suspicious of shows _without_ satirical subtexts.  Programs like
"Barney," which are huge hits with children under ten, are despised by
parents and college-age students, who can find no entertainment value in
them at all.  Barney is just a purple dinosaur who sings songs with kids. 
The show is absolutely straight.  But his straightness has led to anti-
Barney rallies on college campuses, where giant effigies of the kiddie-hero
are thrown into bonfires.  In similar quests for irony, news shows jumped
at the opportunity to appeal to the anti-Barney sentiment by covering, in
great detail, the story of a boy who started a tragic fire by setting his
Barney doll ablaze.
 
    Meanwhile, more sophisticated "kids'" programming like the cartoon "Ren
& Stimpy" finds a receptive audience among teenagers, college students, and
adventurous adults.  By following in the tradition of children's TV with
satirical subtexts aimed at adults, new kids' TV, produced and written
mostly by late baby boomers and Generation X members, is testing the limits
of the tube's ability to spread countercultural messages.
    
REN & STIMPY:  PLAYING IN THE CLOSET
 
"Ren & Stimpy" is a lesson in media activism, too--not as played out by
cartoon characters but by their animator, John Kricfalusi, who personally
tests the limits of his medium's ability to carry countercultural messages. 
Kricfalusi comes from another adult entertainment tradition, that of Ralph
Bakshi and his 1972 X-rated cartoon feature, Fritz the Cat.  Kricfalusi's
own directing debut came in 1987 on Bakshi's Saturday-morning cartoon, a
modernization of "Mighty Mouse" that, not surprisingly, aired on CBS in the
half-hour slot after "Pee-Wee's Playhouse."
 
     "The New Adventures of Mighty Mouse" was a much more blatant display
of adult humor and hidden agendas than "Pee-Wee's Playhouse," and the
network's censors were correspondingly more paranoid.  Eventually,
believing they saw Mighty Mouse snort cocaine in one episode (no one knows
for sure exactly what he was really doing), they canceled the whole series. 
Kricfalusi went out on his own and soon gained the interest of the
Nickelodeon cable channel (owned by MTV), which was looking for alternative
"personal" styles of animation to compete with network, mainstream cartoon
programming.  With Kricfalusi they got more than they bargained for.  His
unlikely cartoon duo--Ren, an emaciated, hypertense Mexican "asthma-hound"
Chihuahua, and Stimpy, a fat, lovable, dim-witted cat--embody a
psychedelic, postmodern, homosexual, antiestablishment set of memes. 
Kricfalusi's dedication to lacing his cartoons with these agendas
ultimately cost him his job and his rights to the material.  Episodes were
deemed unfit for children by Nickelodeon's executives, who decided to do
further seasons of "Ren & Stimpy" without their creator.  (Nickelodeon
claims the dismissal was due to Kricfalusi's inability to meet production
schedules, and its current producers--in an obvious attempt to keep its
older viewers--still try to lace episodes with provocatively subversive
content, although not with the success of the original creator.)
 
    Kricfalusi's dismissal notwithstanding, "Ren & Stimpy" may be the most
direct hit by subversive children's TV on the mainstream media that houses
it.  Unlike "The Simpsons," which satirizes media through sampling and
guest appearances, "Ren & Stimpy" makes a frontal assault on our
expectations about media.  Such outrageous events occur in this cartoon,
and so explicitly, that viewers almost feel the need to shake themselves
awake, as if to say, "Is this really happening on television?" The specific
ways "The Ren & Stimpy Show" accomplished this high naughtiness quotient
reveal a lot about our current cultural immune deficiencies.
 
    Most important to the success of "Ren & Stimpy" was Kricfalusi's
convincing target viewers that his show was, indeed, intended for them. 
His "wink wink" came, as it usually does, in the form of obvious bracketing
devices like fake commercials, direct address, and shows within the show. 
Many episodes begin with a commercial for Log, a toy from fictional toy
manufacturer Blammo (meant to rhyme with Whammo).  Log is just what it says
it is: a log.  The advertisement's lyrics immediately recall "Everyone
wants a Slinky" or "Another fluffer nutter":  "What's great for a snack and
fits on your back? It's log, log, log."  Log is nothing more than a wooden
log, but, as we learn in later ads, it can be used in any number of ways or
even purchased in one of dozens of costumes.  The commercial appeals to the
childhood mind-set specific to GenX, in which industrial waste products
like springs, plastic rings, or gummy rubber became multimillion-dollar
products like Slinky, Hula Hoop, and Silly Putty.  But Kricfalusi
regenerates and celebrates the imagery without the cynicism of "The
Simpsons." GenXers enjoy the ironic distance they have as adults, but do
not condemn the experiences of their youth.  Slinky and Silly Putty may
have been overpriced scams, but they were fun.  Log is exaggeratedly silly,
allowing GenX viewers to laugh at the aspirations they or their boomer
parents had as kids, but also giving them permission to enjoy, with ironic
distance, what it was like to grow up in a postmodern junk culture.  This
sets the tone for the whole show.  Meanwhile kids can watch, too, and
simply enjoy the characters and silly songs.
 
    "Ren & Stimpy" also winks to its older audience in the form of shows
within the show.  Like "The Simpsons," who watch "Itchy and Scratchy,"
Stimpy is a fan of "The Muddy Mudskipper Show," a cartoon about a rather
abusive little fish.  The characters' relationship to the cartoon comments
on the nature of their own animated reality.  Ren, the realist, scolds
Stimpy for believing in Muddy's existence.  "Cartoons aren't real!" he
screams.  "They're not flesh and blood like _us_!" Stimpy simply looks
through the camera at us, confused.  His fanaticism about Muddy is no worse
than the cult following for "The Ren & Stimpy Show." By calling attention
to this, we are both distanced from and rewarded for our own relationship
to the cartoon.  This is a celebration of the GenX ethic: We can
acknowledge the need to relive the media of our past and are allowed to do
so as long as we wink along in recognition of our own silliness.
 
    "Ren & Stimpy" is a kids' experience from the past, but pushed so far
stylistically and subtextually that adults can appreciate the nuances and
techniques they may have missed the first time around.  To analyze it this
way is not beyond the intent of the show or the experience people have
watching it.  "Rocky and His Friends" and "Underdog" are enjoying
comebacks, but  "Ren & Stimpy" is so tremendously successful because it is
directed at an audience that enjoys a self-conscious awareness of their
relationship to media.  The show gives us exactly what we wanted when we
were kids and then some.  It tests the limits of allowable grossness,
weirdness, and naughtiness.
 
    The original Kricfalusi episodes of the show were fraught with some of
the most humorously disgusting images in television.  Stimpy had a
collection of nose goblins he kept stuck to the bottom of a chair; they are
green, talking pieces of dried mucus.  Fantastically exaggerated
magnifications of tooth decay, ear wax, ticks, nose hairs, eye veins, and
underarm stubble abound.  One episode was about harvesting Stimpy's
coughed-up hairballs, and another focused on his Kitty Litter, which he
also eats.  This passion for the grotesque is a tribute to repressed
childhood fixations.  Kids love gross, slimy stuff.  Some psychologists
even believe that the fascination with slime and intimate body parts is an
aspect of the child's developing sense of intimacy and sexuality and an
important stage in the development of physical affection.  But children are
usually scolded for what are thought to be disgusting preoccupations.  They
are told that growing up means learning to be clean and are encouraged to
repress messier urges.  "Ren & Stimpy," by freeing its viewers to enjoy all
the grotesqueness they can tolerate, is a statement against this sort of
repression.  It is an invitation to reawaken the child's world-view and,
more than that, to overthrow societal restrictions and possibly arbitrary
barriers to self-expression.
 
    The original version of the show also daringly opened other locked
closets of our social psyche.  Homosexuality, perhaps our deepest, darkest
cultural dust bunny, was the issue that got "The Ren & Stimpy Show" in the
most trouble.  Ren and Stimpy are not necessarily gay, but there are many
suggestions even in current episodes that they are more than just friends. 
The dog and cat live together, sleep in the same bed, bathe together, and
assume the roles of a husband and wife.  Theirs is a domestic American
life, and their relationship is often depicted as overly codependent.  If
anything, by not explicitly mentioning the boys' sexuality, the show is
telling us that their sexuality is just a part of their lives and no big
deal.  But as a meme within the cultural virus of the show, their gayness
has been exploited quite deliberately.
 
    In the original pilot, Stimpy was supposed to have been pregnant with
Ren's love child.  This, like many other direct references to their
homosexuality, was cut, but Kricfalusi managed to sneak in other more
oblique references.  In one episode Stimpy wins a contest and leaves home
to become a TV star.  Ren cries by his bedside photo of Stimpy especially
because he had a fight with him before he left and misses his pal so much
that his pillow turns into Stimpy and embraces him.  In the end Stimpy
gives up his fame and $43 million to come home to his true love.  In
another show Stimpy gives birth to a child who turns out to be a fart named
Stinky.  Ren is disgusted with Stimpy's stretch marks and even more
disturbed when Stimpy goes through tremendous postpartum depression.  When
Ren tries to get Stimpy to kiss him under the mistletoe, little hearts
emerge from his chest and his eyelashes grow.  Another time Ren kisses
Stimpy's forehead, causing his tongue to slowly uncurl and erect.
 
    The most blatantly gay episode, and the most meaningful one, too, was
called "Sven Hoek" and concerned the visit of Ren's brother, Sven.  Ren,
who has gotten fed up with Stimpy's stupidity, is anxious for the visit of
his brother, who should be smart, like him.  Sven turns out to be a near
clone of Stimpy, and the two bond very fast.  First they share their
disgusting collections of nose goblins and spit with each other.  Then,
after a game of "seek and hide," the two end up in the closet together,
sitting in Stimpy's cat box.  As Stimpy relieves himself in the litter, we
watch Sven smile as he realizes he is sitting in Stimpy's pee.  As if aware
of our own emerging realization about his sexuality, Stimpy turns to us and
says, "Hey! This is private!" and shuts the closet door.  Then, in the
original script but cut by Nickelodeon from this scene, were lines through
the closed closet door about playing circus. Stimpy volunteered, "I'm a
sword swallower," after which we were to hear a gulping sound.
 
    If there was any doubt at that point about what was happening, it was
made even clearer by Ren's jealous reaction on returning home to find "Sven
Loves Stimpy" scrawled on the living-room wall.  He goes mad with jealous
rage and decides to urinate on Stimpy and Sven's favorite board game,
"Don't Whizz on the Electric Fence."  When he does all three are
electrocuted and die.  Besides the obvious metaphorical value in the
dangers of "sitting on the fence" when it comes to sexuality, the episode
made clear, once and for all, that the hints at Ren and Stimpy's sexuality
were absolutely intentional.
 
    _Esquire_ picked up on the cue and commented, "Kids won't even find out
how much their values have been perverted until they hit high school!" What
_Esquire_ considered a perversion, other, less mainstream media outlets
praised as culturally progressive.  _Reactor,_ a Chicago alternative music
and club-life magazine, conducted a spoof interview with Ren and Stimpy
about coming out of the closet called "Happy Happy Queer Queer!" The piece
jokingly concluded, "Now, there's no doubt that in the future, we will be
forced to witness arranged dates, vehement denials from the network, along
with probably a well-publicized marriage for one of them and of course the
macabre speculation every time one of them takes ill." The writers at
_Reactor_ obviously have a sense of how Ren and Stimpy function as media
entities, so their mock analysis concerns ways in which gay people have
their lives fashioned and adjusted for media representation.
 
    It is surprising that so many gay references were left in the show
while its seemingly less virulent political memes were more often cut by
network censors.  Maybe this is because political satire is easier and less
embarrassing to recognize.  Kricfalusi managed to offend both right-wing
traditionalists and "politically correct" liberals by daring to consider
all such thought obsolete.  The most famously banned episode, titled after
its superhero protagonist "Powdered Toast Man," cast Frank Zappa (a
notorious rock and roll media viralist in his own right) as the pope, who
at one point shoves his face deep into the superhero's buttocks.  Later in
the episode, Powdered Toast Man crumples what he calls "dusty old papers "-
-the Constitution and the Bill of Rights--and burns them in the Oval Office
fireplace in order to roast marshmallows, an action he says will "relieve
U.S.  citizens of their constitutional rights." Righteous viewers
complained to the Federal Communications Commission and the episode was
shelved.
 
    Another of Kricfalusi's characters, staunch conservative George Liquor,
infuriated feminists on the Nickelodeon staff, who thought the name was
meant as a pun on "lick her" (which is why Kricfalusi went through the
pains to spell out the name Liquor  on the screen so many times). 
According to Kricfalusi, his critics have lost the ability to distinguish
between cartoons and reality, and consider characters like Liquor a genuine
threat to their value systems.  Nickelodeon executives rejected one
episode, "Man's Best Friend," in which George Liquor physically
"disciplines" Ren and Stimpy.  Kricfalusi is angered but almost amused by
these naively harsh reactions to his brand of comedy and cites an overfelt
sense of political correctness for the misinterpretation of his humor. 
"Somebody...used the word 'vile' to describe 'Man's Best
Friend,'" Kricfalusi argues, "but it's not violent.  It's slapstick.  I had
to keep explaining to them that it's a cartoon!...Our biggest mistake is
that we do our risque material cleverly.  They notice it more because our
show is a hit."
 
    In all fairness, though, "Ren & Stimpy" draws more attention than, say,
MTV's "Liquid Television" cartoons because it is more ostensibly directed
at children.  The dissociated style and meme-rich content of a TV show is
no crime in itself.  Foisting these ideologies on growing minds is
considered a far greater cultural crime.  Kricfalusi himself admitted in an
early _Spin_ magazine interview, "I think we are destroying the minds of
America, and that's been one of my lifelong ambitions." 
 
    Kricfalusi's formula for accomplishing this is based in postmodernism
and chaos.  More than challenging specific moral constructs, his cartoons
eat away at the current model of reality, replacing the notions of
linearity and continuity with a discontinuous, almost existential collage
of pictures and ideas.  "Ren & Stimpy" is a postpsychedelic cartoon.  Its
characters and plots do not follow the normal order set out by dramatic
convention.  In one episode they may reside in a trailer, and in the next
they live in a house.  Sometimes it is Ren who has a job, other times it's
Stimpy.  Sometimes they are astronauts, and sometimes they even die, then
reanimate for the next show.
 
    This sense of discontinuity is amplified by the style of the show,
which uses a disconnected sort of animation in which psychedelic and quick-
changing images move in front of 1950s-style backgrounds of stars and paint
splatters.  The sound track of the show uses quick samples of classical
music or sound effects over a satirically monotonous wash of 1950s Muzaky
background tracks, reminiscent of old public school instructional films or
"Leave It to Beaver" television-era vacuum cleaner advertisements.  The
juxtaposition of old seamless imagery with the popping veins and sudden
mood shifts of the characters only makes this discontinuity more
pronounced.  In one episode, clearly meant to evoke the feeling of a
sixties LSD-flashback movie, the boys, distanced as astronauts on a show
within the show, get stuck on a planet where they physically mutate dozens
of times and lose their language skills and many parts of their bodies. 
With no rational way out, they just embrace each other for the last time,
push a button, and disappear.
 
    In Kricfalusi's new world disorder, the only alternative in an
increasingly discontinuous and alien reality is to embrace the fundamental
humanity we all share in the form of love.  Before we dismiss this argument
as reading too deep into the show, let us remember even _Esquire_ mused
that "'Ren & Stimpy' is ultimately about friendship, need, and other
timeless values.  Who can say no to love? ...  We see in Ren a projection
of our own repressed psychotic tendencies.  His scream, complete with
eyeballs that detach from their sockets, taps into the shared primordial
well of our societal alienation." Ren plays Vladimir to Stimpy's Estragon. 
While Ren recognizes the futility of his attempts to impose order and
rationality on his world, Stimpy is too simple to care.  Ren must learn to
live in the "happy joy" manner of his pal Stimpy, even though he is so much
more intelligent.  At least on the surface.
 
    It is actually Stimpy, in all his dim-witted glee, who has developed
the coping mechanisms necessary for smooth sailing on the waves of an
unfathomable postmodern sea.  In the episode called "Marooned," the boys
are stranded on an alien planet.  It is Stimpy who takes time to appreciate
the beauty of the planet's moon, while Ren is so stuck in his expectations
of where a moon should be that he hits his head against it.  When Ren
panics, "We're marooned!" Stimpy is self-conscious enough of his media
identity--he is only playing the part of Stimpy--to smile and realize:
"Just like the title of this cartoon!"
 
    Stimpy, as dull and TV-addicted as he may be, is also equipped to
survive in a discontinuous reality.  He intuitively understands the nature
of media and its accompanying alienation and knows that the way to endure
is to espouse the ancient virtues of joy and friendship.  Like GenXers, who
pride themselves on their ability to hold on to the merriment of their
youth, Stimpy maintains his simple but grounded sanity by seeing his life
as a free-form and joyous adventure.  Because he has no expectations, he
can adapt spontaneously to the ever-changing conditions around him.  "Ren &
Stimpy" _does_ destroy the minds of America,  as Kricfalusi intended, by
posing an alternative, albeit mindless, strategy for moving through life in
the media era.
 
    While the post-Kricfalusi "Ren & Stimpy" maintains its reputation for
provocative and disgusting moments, it has lost its greatest value as a
viral conduit: At its core, like all of the best kids' TV, the show was a
primer on living in a discontinuous, cut-and-paste reality.  Whether it is
Pee-Wee Herman re-creating a childhood through the antics of an adult or a
kid like Bart Simpson deconstructing and subverting the media messages from
the adult world around him, kids' TV manipulates adult culture by doing
more than one thing with media at the same time.
    
<about the gopher area where this excerpt was located>
 
Titles of Interest from Ballantine Books:
 
Del Rey Books is an imprint of Ballantine, and occasionally Ballantine
publishes books that we think might be of interest to sf and fantasy
readers.  (For example, horror novels or interesting nonfiction.)  We
will occasionally be putting sample chapters, etc. online here from
those books.  Let us know what you think!
 
 
Sample chapters available:
 
THE HOMING, John Saul (horror) 
 
MEDIA VIRUS!: Hidden Agendas in Popular Culture, Douglas Rushkoff, author of 
CYBERIA and THE GEN X READER (non-fiction)
 
 
|DEL| Ellen Key Harris      ekh@panix.com     E.Harris1@GEnie.geis.com
|REY| Editor, Del Rey Books      201 East 50th Street, NY NY 10022 USA
======================================================================

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